<< -- 2 -- Robert Anderson SATISFYING THE QUEST
Wilde's tale concerns an agonised student urgently seeking a red rose to persuade his girlfriend
to attend the prince's ball with him. He is overheard by a nightingale perched in a holm-oak tree
who ultimately satisfies the quest by sacrificing her own life. There are strange overtones.
Classical nightingales have become birds only because as humans they committed murder; hence their
endless complaining. For Oscar Wilde the nightingale is bird enough to rate her own heart as far
less than a man's; but her overwhelming sympathy with the bookish young scholar is such that she
will pass a night in rapturous song with her breast thrust against the thorn of a rose-bush till
finally it penetrates her heart. There then blossoms a rose of deepest red.
Perhaps Wilde took a hint from mediaeval Persia. In his Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, Edward
Fitzgerald has a telling couplet:
- 'Red wine!' -- the Nightingale cries to the Rose,
That yellow Cheek of hers t'incarnadine.
Not that the altruism and pain of the nightingale is of any avail. When at last she has created
the rose 'out of music, by moonlight' and stained it not with wine but with her 'own heart's-blood',
the professor's daughter, for whom the quest was undertaken, claims the rose 'will not go' with her
dress and that the chamberlain's nephew is proving a far more satisfactory suitor. The rejected
student can merely turn on its head the nightingale's earlier comment, 'Surely love is a wonderful
thing', and define it now as merely 'a silly thing'. Back he will go to his philosophy and
metaphysics, slamming the door of his room to the final F minor chord.
Copyright © 18 September 2006
Robert Anderson, London UK